The Guide to Getting Into Joni Mitchell, the Blueprint for Human Experience
Mitchell, in all her incarnations, remains a chief cartographer of American music and the female experience. Regardless of who you are, her map is made for you.
When she was nine years old, Joni Mitchell gave her first public performance in a Canadian polio ward. It was the holidays, and Mitchell, one of thousands of children stricken during the country’s polio epidemic of the early 1950s, couldn’t be at home to celebrate with her family. So, laid up in bed, she sang Christmas carols, loudly.
“The boy in the bed next to me, you know, used to complain. And I discovered I was a ham,” Mitchell told Cameron Crowe in 1979. “That was the first time I started to sing for people.”
It was an inauspicious but telling beginning for one of the most prolific musicians of the twentieth century. With 19 studio albums released since her 1968 debut Song to a Seagull, Mitchell—who turns 75 this week—never really stopped singing, with pain and hard circumstance catalyzing some of her most beloved output. The public would sit captivated as she forged an uncharted route through the folk scene of her youth, into pop mega-stardom, to avant-garde jazz, to an 80s rock incarnation for which she embraced the sound and technology of the era—all on her own, distinctly Joni Mitchell terms.
In this way, Mitchell’s body of work manifests the progression of American music since the late 1960s. But hers is also a path that could never have been schemed up by the star-maker machinery Mitchell often lamented. Supremely self-possessed and embodying a fierce, unapologetic artistic vision, Joni Mitchell’s musical storytelling, experimental song structures, and social critiques were every bit as mold-breaking as her male counterparts of the era—Bob Dylan, James Taylor, Neil Young, and Crosby Stills & Nash among them.
But Joni Mitchell is also peerless, with her open guitar tuning—”I don’t know the name of it,” she once responded when asked what chord she was playing, “I tune my guitar this way, to make myself stupid,” that is, to not fall into predetermined patterns—and her unmistakable three-octave voice seeming to emanate from both her guts and her third eye. Perhaps most crucially, it’s Mitchell’s words that captivate, with her lyrical poetry creating vivid scenes—the river to skate away on, the big yellow taxi, a lurking coyote, a case of you to imbibe—in which lived emotions and dormant ideas are freely rekindled. Whether traversing or defying genres, Mitchell’s catalog is connected by the essential spirit—contemplative, cool, vivid, sensual, funny, frustrated, honest—she delivered to each, obvious and unmistakable.
Born Roberta Joan Anderson to a Canadian military family, Mitchell and her parents settled in rural Saskatchewan during her adolescence. Her interest in visual art—Mitchell painted the majority of her album covers—brought her to art school in Calgary, where she stayed for a year before moving to Toronto. It was here, in 1964, that she became pregnant out of wedlock at age 20. With abortion then illegal in Canada, and unwed motherhood anathema to polite society, Mitchell gave the baby, a girl, up for adoption. The experienced fueled her next 30 years of songwriting.
“I wrote songs from the time I lost my daughter to the time she came back,” Mitchell, who reunited with her child in 1997, told NPR in 2004. “Since my family has returned to me, I don’t write anymore. It seems like I mothered the world until I got my own family to mother or befriend.”
After divorcing her first husband Chuck Mitchell in 1967, Mitchell moved from Detroit to New York, where her songs like “Urge For Going,” “The Circle Game,” and “Michael From the Mountains” would become hits for folk heroes Tom Rush, Buffy Sainte-Marie and Judy Collins. (Her music would go on to be covered by everyone from Bjork to James Blake to Prince, the latter of whom wrote Mitchell fan mail as a teenager.) She then flipped coasts to California, where Crosby, Stills & Nash (and sometimes Young), along with The Mamas & the Papas, Gram Parsons, Linda Ronstadt and more, were forging the SoCal sound Mitchell would help catalyze as her music entered, and eventually came to dominate, mainstream consciousness.
Her work is simultaneously delicate and sturdy, with spare, often skeletal guitar and piano creating a foundation for her rich, feathery voice, the lightness of which often betrayed the seriousness of what she was singing about. Mitchell is the quintessential singer songwriter, creating the template for countless future artists—Feist, Fiona Apple, Neko Case, and Elliot Smith among them—who would take inspiration from her work.
Ultimately, there are millions of ways to consider Mitchell’s catalog, and all of them are correct. For as specific as many of her lyrics are, listening to Joni Mitchell is an intensely personal experience. When she sings, she sings to you, about you. Much like Joan Didion revealed generations of largely female readers to themselves, with the deep emotions evoked by her instrumentation and lyrical poetry that presented new and nuanced ways of thinking and being, Joni Mitchell has showed us how we feel, how to feel, and who we are and what we might be. Getting into her requires nothing more than a willingness to let her affect you. Listen, and you’ll find that you don’t often have a choice.
So You Want to Get Into: Ingenue Folk Poet Joni?
Mitchell was, by her own admission, not actually a folk musician for all that long. “I was only a folk singer for about two years,” she told Rolling Stone in 1979 , “and that was several years before I ever made a record. By that time, it wasn’t really folk music anymore. It was some new American phenomenon. Later, they called it singer/songwriters. Or art songs, which I liked best.”
Regardless of semantics, Mitchell performed at the Newport Folk Festival in 1967 through 1969. Her output fell squarely alongside folk singers of the day like Joan Baez and Judy Collins, who had a hit with her 1967 cover of Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now.” Mitchell released her own version of the song—which endures as one of her essential tracks—on 1969’s Clouds. Her sophomore album, Clouds, won the 1969 Grammy for Best Folk Performance and served as the follow-up to her 1968 David Crosby-produced debut.
The second half of 1970’s Ladies of the Canyon features “Big Yellow Taxi” and “Woodstock,” songs that would define the late 60s counterculture, even after Mitchell’s then-manager David Geffen convinced her to skip Woodstock in order to appear on a Woodstock-themed episode of The Dick Cavett Show alongside Jefferson Airplane and Crosby, Stills & Nash .
On these early LPs, Mitchell’s bird song of a voice floats above lean guitar and piano arrangements, sounding like the sun through eucalyptus leaves on a Laurel Canyon morning. This often sweet sounding music is betrayed by a certain pervading loneliness and seriousness of subject matter—the bittersweet realization that you’ve evolved beyond your lover (“I Had a King”), the power of fear (“I Think I Understand”), the fall of man (“Woodstock”), and the degradation of nature (“Big Yellow Taxi.”) This latter track has been covered by everyone from Bob Dylan to Counting Crows to Janet Jackson, who sampled it on 1997’s “Got Til It’s Gone,” with guest Q-Tip taking the line “Joni Mitchell doesn’t lie.”
While other artists of this era were leaning into pastoral sounds, with Nick Drake demonstrating a similar style over in London, Mitchell’s work soundtracked the mercurial America of that moment. The heady, peaceful promises of the counterculture still seemed real, although the shadow side of this scene, drug addiction, paranoia, ego, police retaliation, was too revealing itself. Mitchell’s music effectively captured the era from both angles, serving as both anthems and warnings for a generation coming into itself.
PLAYLIST: "I Had a King" / "Michael From the Mountains" / "Song to a Seagull" / "I Think I Understand" / "Both Sides Now" / "Woodstock" / "Big Yellow Taxi" / "The Circle Game"
So You Want to Get Into: Fiercely Vulnerable Pop Joni Mitchell?
Mitchell’s best known and most commercially successful music was also her most confessional, with Mitchell turning herself inside out in the service of her art on Blue, For The Roses, and Court & Spark. Her lyrics in this fertile early 70s era were highly analytical, closely observational, and deeply feminine, revealing an artist both anxious but cool, sensual but standoffish, shy but demanding, confident but evolving. Her lyrical output was a 360-degree perspective of femininity, a depiction more forthright and complete than nearly anything delivered by artists of earlier eras. The opening line of Blue—“I am on a lonely road and I am traveling, traveling traveling, traveling. Looking for something, what can it be? / Oh I hate you some. I hate you some, I love you some. I love you when I forget about me.”—feels like sitting down for a long talk with a trusted friend. Joni Mitchell earned the trust of listeners by making herself vulnerable to them.
“We all suffer for our loneliness, but at the time of Blue,” Mitchell told Rolling Stone, “our pop stars never admitted these things.”
Widely considered one of the greatest albums of all time—and chosen by NPR as the all-time best album by a woman— Blue is about love in all its incarnations. On it, she explores relationships sweet and sour on “My Old Man,” “A Case of You,” (an oft-covered torch ballad about her romance with Leonard Cohen), “The Last Time I Saw Richard,” her love of the Golden State on the pretty, funny “California,” and long repressed heartache on “Little Green.”
Mitchell wrote the latter about the daughter she gave up for adoption when she was 20, broke, and living in Canada, a narrative she’d started on “The Circle Game.” Parting with her child was a major turning point of Mitchell’s personal and professional life, with all her hidden sorrow finally let loose and presented to the world in sonic poetry—“Born with the moon in Cancer / Choose her a name she'll answer too / Call her green and the winters can not fade her.”
"The Blue album, there's hardly a dishonest note in the vocals,” Mitchell told Crowe in ‘79. “At that period of my life, I had no personal defenses. I felt like a cellophane wrapper on a pack of cigarettes. I felt like I had absolutely no secrets from the world and I couldn't pretend in my life to be strong. Or to be happy. But the advantage of it in the music was that there were no defenses there either."
This defenselessness persisted on 1972’s For the Roses, on which she, in her eternal genius, wrote a song from the perspective of a radio in response to her record label’s request that she make a radio friendly hit. “Your Turn Me On, I’m a Radio” did the trick, becoming Mitchell’s first Top 40 hit in America as an artist.
1974 saw the biggest commercial album hit of Mitchell’s career with Court And Spark. On the album, she portrays herself in the light and shadow of her success—a woman both deeply embedded in the music industry, and nervously observing the party from the corner of the room. She talks about mental health on “Twisted” and desire on “Car On a Hill”, with the album’s lush arrangements marking a change in direction, and hinting at the experimental jazz style she was about to embrace. When Joni Mitchell is considered, it’s most often her work from this fertile era that comes to mind.
PLAYLIST: "Little Green" / "California" / "A Case of You" / "You Turn Me On I’m a Radio" / "Blond In the Bleachers" / "People’s Parties" / "Car On A Hill" / "Trouble Child"
So You Want to Get Into: No Fucks, Avant-Garde Jazz Goddess Joni?
Conceived and composed on a pair of largely solitary, post-tour road trips back and forth across the United States, 1976’s Hejira marks Mitchell’s most experimental album to date, and announced a sea change from the more accessible pop melodies of Court And Spark and its 1975 follow-up, The Hissing of Summer Lawns.
While songs like “Coyote,” “Amelia,” and “Furry Sings the Blues,”on which storytelling was given as much importance as the deconstructed instrumentat, received wide critical praise, Hejira failed to get significant commercial airplay, and forecasted the deep experimentalism of 1977’s Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter and 1979’s Mingus. On the latter, of course, Mitchell collaborated with jazz icon Charles Mingus, who sought her out for the project. They spent the last year of his life working on the project, with Mitchell writing lyrics and painting Mingus’ portrait for the album cover.
“She ended up making music that doesn’t really have a category,” David Yaffe, author of Reckless Daughter: A Portrait of Joni Mitchell, told PBS NewsHour in 2017. “It wasn’t jazz, but it was not quite pop either. It was something else—it was Joni Mitchell music.”
While much of her songwriting from this period was less accessible to her internal world Mitchell was still revealing herself through her evolving interests. “The Tenth World,” from Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter, is nearly seven minutes of African percussion, while the 16-minute “Paprika Plains” is a long stroll through cinematic orchestral music. She doesn’t seem to care if her moods suit you, only that she’s suiting herself. Critics called the album reckless, drowsy and disengaged, but its insistent experimentation, glued together with Mitchell’s voice—showing its first signs of the husky transformation caused by her four-pack-a-day cigarette habit—made the music, in time, as essential and revealing as her previous output.
And the jazz community was always with her. In 2007, Herbie Hancock paid homage of Mitchell’s influence in the genre by releasing River: The Joni Letters. The album featured artists including Norah Jones, Tina Turner, Leonard Cohen, and Wayne Shorter covering Mitchell’s music. It won the Grammy for Album of the Year in 2008.
PLAYLIST: "Coyote" / "Amelia" / "Furry Sings the Blues" / "Hejira" / "God Must Be a Boogie Man" / "A Chair in the Sky" / "The Dry Cleaner From Des Moines" / "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat"
So You Want to Get Into: 80s Synth Queen Joni?
Technological advancements of the 1980s brought loads of new ways to make music, and in this era Joni Mitchell embraced many elements she hadn’t yet incorporated, most notably the electric guitar and synthesizer. While Neil Young was tinkering away with electronic music on his 1982 Kraftwerk-lite LP Trans, Mitchell was going full 80s bombast, with her work on Wild Things Run Fast, Dog Eat Dog, and Chalk Mark in A Rain Storm sounding fuller, louder, and often less delicate that anything she’d previously made.
These albums comprised much of her deal with Geffen Records, the 1980s mega-label founded by her former manager David Geffen. Much like Jefferson Airplane’s awkward transformation to the bloated silliness of Jefferson Starship, the 80s sound was a strange fit for Mitchell. But she didn’t let the style of the era overpower her essential Joni Mitchell-ness, with her words and song structures remaining fundamentally tethered to her longstanding style in their nontraditional structures and explorations of consumerism, televangelists, fame, and the Reagan era at large.
“Wild Things Run Fast” could have been at home in the era’s blossoming punk genre, while “Chinese Café/Unchained Melody” meanders along before transitioning into a smooth jazz cover of The Righteous Brothers’ hit. “The Three Great Stimulants,” meanwhile, soars on Phil Collins-style drumming. There’s even “Good Friends,“ a deliciously 80s cheese-soaked duet with Michael McDonald.
The Joni Mitchell of this era—a woman entering her 40s, and seemingly more comfortable with herself than ever—was not an artist clinging for relevance, but one exploring how the trends of the era might serve her. Few fans will count these among their favorite Joni Mitchell albums, but being anyone’s favorite was never her ambition. As always, Mitchell’s primary impetus was making art, an impulse that connects this era with the complete spectrum of her career. This fierce and unapologetic commitment to self-excavation is her singular gift—as an artist, and to her audience. Then, as ever, Joni Mitchell just wanted to sing.
Joni is an old woman now. Her last album was released in 2007, and her rare public appearances have fueled rumors of ailing health. Yet she remains accessible, her work unmarred by time. You can take her with you on a road trip, ask her for counsel when the world is dark, or just enjoy her company during quiet nights at home. Mitchell, in all her incarnations, remains a chief cartographer of American music and the female experience. Regardless of who you are, the map she made is for you.
PLAYLIST: "Wild Things Run Fast" / "You’re So Square (Baby I Don’t Care)" / "Good Friends" / "The Three Great Stimulants" / "Dog Eat Dog" / "Lakota" / "The Tea Leaf Prophecy (Lay Down Your Arms)"
Katie Bain is stoking the star maker machinery behind the popular song. She’s on Twitter.